Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Living Life in Definitional Increments

Suddenly I find myself surrounded by articles talking about life at 80. Why do I notice these? I am nowhere close to this decrepit, dilapidated, crumbling period of life when—I am told—things start to really fall apart.  I am in my early 70s—what some refer to as the new 50s–kayaking, swimming, and biking almost every day. I am hopeful of beginning my fourth book soon. I am older—but not old. I have no time for this.

Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a bit.

What I am learning is that life has a way of sneaking up on you—or shall I say death? More than ever, I am beginning to see life in seven-to-ten-year increments. It’s part of the reason, after ten years, Heather and I have decided recently to put our cabin in the wilderness up for sale. It’s time.

I was listening to Gordon MacDonald this week—who has recently entered his 80s. He shared recently in a video the life lessons he has learned and is learning, as he has entered this decade. One of them is to reorganize your inner (and I would add “your outer life”) every seven to ten years. Life goes through different definitional increments-be it if one is in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s 50’s, or beyond. In the ’70s, he notes that you have to learn to deal with loss (I just lost two friends this week). We will soon deal with the loss of a place we have shared with friends for ten remarkable years (though we will keep the memories as long as we can). But eight-hour drives and seven areas to care for are not what I want to do five to ten years from now. It will be enough to keep things together back in Portland.

I have long been fascinated with leadership. I use these posts, as well as my writing of books, to write about leadership. In two recent articles, one from a more liberal and one from a more conservative publication, I noticed that writers are urging Joe Biden not to run again (why am I reading these?). These are not politically motivated statements. They are writers on the other side of 80, viewing a President about to turn 80, and warning—don’t do it!!. It has little to do with an “ageist” prejudice—just an observation that people in their 70’s and 80’s wither. (I find this such a pleasant thought).

I’ve had one hip replacement, but that had everything to do with 55 years of competitive tennis—not aging. Right? My eyesight and hearing are not as stellar as they once were, and more and more of my conversations with people center around bodily breakdowns (they bring it up).  In one of the articles, Robert Reich notes that times together begin with an “organ recital” — how’s your back? knee? heart? hip? shoulder? eyesight? hearing? prostate? hemorrhoids? digestion? The question my friends and I jokingly (and brutishly) asked  — ‘getting much?’ — now refers not to sex but to sleep.”

Too bad for him.

Lance Morrow also weighed in recently from the other side, also advising Biden not to run again. Morrow, a wonderful writer, is now 82. He has prepared a scouting report for those who will cross the mystic border of 80 into “serious old age.” He writes, “You will have observed that old age is a surreal phenomenon, and that time passes with accelerating speed. A year is compressed into a month.  The End is always there, just up ahead in the mist and dark, though you do not know exactly when or how it will come upon you.” What is certain is that one finds one is no longer the future—and one must be ready to move into obscurity.

Morrow goes on to remind Biden (and his readers), “It is well to remember that Teddy Roosevelt died at 60, thoroughly worn out. His cousin Franklin died at 63—wasted, spent. Lyndon B. Johnson, FDR’s onetime protégé, expired, exhausted, at 64.” Though we would like to think it is true, none of us are forever young. Even Bob Dylan, 81, is old.

I do resonate with Murrow’s reflection. Life has about it a “seemly, inevitable flow, a progression from birth to childhood to youth to adulthood to middle age to old age, and finally to death, with rules and roles appropriate to each stage. It is good to be old. It is good to be young. It is right to be a child and right, when the time comes, to be a mother or father, and right, further down the road, to be a grandfather and, by and by, a corpse. To everything, there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

Still, I can’t avoid being captured by Dylan’s lyrics—

“May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.”

Nevertheless, denial will soon catch up.

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